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Expand chart
Note: 1800–1900 data shown at 25-year intervals, 1900–1920 & 1930–1970 data shown at 10-year intervals, and 1920–1930 & 1970–2015 data shown at 5-year intervals. Data: Arnulf Grubler (2008), International Energy Agency (2017). Reproduced from charts by Richard Newell and Daniel Raimi. Chart: Axios Visuals

Since 2010, the costs of producing electricity from solar photovoltaic systems have decreased by more than 80%. Wind and solar now vie with natural gas to provide new electricity generating capacity. To some, these trends signal the world’s latest energy transition: away from fossil fuels and toward a renewable future.

The big picture: These historical changes in the energy system, however, have been a matter of addition, not transition. Although the percentage shares of biomass, coal and oil in our energy supply have fallen with the rise of alternatives, their total use continues to grow. The world has never experienced an energy transition, but the challenge of climate change means that, for the first time, one will need to begin.

Since 1800 biomass consumption has increased by about 275%, and coal use by more than 60% just since 2000. Rapidly falling costs and growing investments have helped boost wind and solar power, but these energy sources — like nuclear, oil, and gas before them — are building on top of old ones, rather than replacing them.

A true energy transition will need to reduce carbon emissions. By 2040, the International Energy Agency projects that, to reach the climate targets laid out in the Paris Agreement, global coal consumption would need to decline by more than half while oil consumption falls by almost 25%. Natural gas could continue to grow, though more slowly than today. Renewables would need to increase roughly tenfold from today’s levels to provide, together with nuclear, more than 25% of global energy.

Economists have consistently identified the policies to achieve such a transition: a price on greenhouse gas emissions, coupled with incentives for early-stage research and new technology development, including advanced solar, nuclear and carbon capture technologies.

Yes, but: While some major emitters are adopting these policies, they are mostly falling short of the goals outlined in Paris, and new investments in fossil fuels continue to more than double those in renewables. Meanwhile, federal policy in the U.S. is moving in the opposite direction. And even with ideal policies, a real energy transition would mean winners and losers, creating substantial challenges for regions reliant on the production, transformation and consumption of fossil fuels.

The bottom line: To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, renewables and new technologies will need to do more than build atop CO2–intensive fossil fuels — they will need to push out incumbents while at the same time expanding global energy access and reducing the system’s environmental footprint.

Richard Newell is president and CEO of Resources for the Future. Daniel Raimi is a senior research associate in RFF’s Energy and Climate Program.

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Home confinees face imminent return to prison

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Thousands of prisoners who've been in home confinement for as long as a year because of the pandemic face returning to prison when it's over — unless President Biden rescinds a last-minute Trump Justice Department memo.

Why it matters: Most prisoners were told they would not have to come back as they were released early with ankle bracelets. Now, their lives are on hold while they wait to see whether or when they may be forced back behind bars. Advocates say about 4,500 people are affected.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Nearly five months after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced the creation of the bipartisan Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth, it's not been formed much less met.

Why it matters: Select committees are designed to address urgent matters, but the 117th Congress is now nearly one-quarter complete without this panel assembling. When she announced this committee, Pelosi described it as an "essential force" to "combat the crisis of income and wealth disparity in America."

Biden's ethics end-around for labor

President Biden surveys a water treatment plant during a visit to New Orleans today. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration is excusing top officials from ethics rules that would otherwise restrict their work with large labor unions that previously employed them, federal records show.

Why it matters: Labor's sizable personnel presence in the administration is driving policy, and the president's appointment of top union officials to senior posts gives those unions powerful voices in the federal bureaucracy — even at the cost of strictly adhering to his own stringent ethics standards.